Mark R. Harris’s Fire in the Bones, a 2015 publication with Black Rose Writing, is an enchanted tale, featuring effective storytelling that offers readers a delightful way to while away some hours by taking a foray through the prescient mind and life of a pre-teen boy growing up in the sixties. The boy, besides being charming and innocent, inquisitive and intelligent, is eminently likeable. And the book often effortlessly funny, eliciting many smiles and a few laugh-out-loud moments, and sometimes quite touching and poignant.
The story chronicles the young Luke’s doubts and fears, loneliness and powerlessness, successes and failures, all seamlessly filtered and processed through the TV, music, and radio of the period, punctuated with pop cultural icons ranging from Batman to Secret Agent Man, from Underdog to Catwoman to, most importantly, The Beatles. Despite the tumult of the 60s, the story evokes a sense of a simpler time, in part because, at this point in Luke’s life, much of the world occupying his attention wasn’t overwhelmed by the Vietnam War or flower children, but with more personal concerns. And yet, in its own way, inside his head was a universe of its own. The privileged perspective of the novel is always childlike, though rarely childish, and its unassuming and simple clarity shouldn’t be mistaken for anything simplistic; it’s in fact psychologically rich.
Early in the narrative Luke faces a couple challenges that upset his equanimity and create feelings of anger and fear within him. He’s in a car accident from which it takes some time to recover, and his family relocates 500 miles away, leaving behind the familiar and rendering him powerless in the face of such unexpected events along the way. A sense of fear and anger haunts much of his childhood, and navigating such negative emotions—a “surging wave of heat” when provided with fresh “fodder for his fury”—becomes one of his biggest recurring challenges. Sometimes the only way for him to fight fear is with anger, relegating him to feel viscerally one or the other.
Very bright, and gifted with a vivid imagination, Luke develops a number of coping mechanisms—including, the night of the relocation, conjuring up a character from a dream, an imaginary friend (Bob) who would be his faithful companion for years. Such a measure of constancy seems to help counterbalance life’s fluctuating circumstances. Similarly, retreating to his imagination enables Luke to exert power he likes to think he has; assuming the persona of Underdog or Secret Agent Man, he relishes picturing himself heroically swooping to the rescue of various girls who’d struck his fancy. The character is far from static, as he continues valiantly to struggle to outgrow his fears, even experimenting with recklessness after renouncing those fears, and finally facing his fears with courage.
Besides fear and anger, coping with loss and change and feelings of helplessness, Luke yearns for safety. Taking his first fledgling steps navigating a big scary world filled with questions—especially the mystery of girls—Luke isn’t debilitated by his fears. This, despite that some of his fears run very deep. From a very young age they extend to angst over potential blasphemy, raising the very question of who God is—an unbending Judge, or loving Father. In his precocious fashion, he apprehends a tension between his worst fears, on the one hand—like the idea that God doesn’t love him after all and the unquenchable fires of hell—and the good theology he’d learned at church that he held firmly to in his head. Most of all, Luke wants to forge connections—with God, with friends, with girls, with family. Despite his power of imagination and prodigious gift for introspection, he becomes ready to act when the time is right.
Luke realizes at a certain point he’s been afraid all of his life, and he wants to be delivered from that fear. For help he looks to the two resources he’s come to trust the most: God (the Bible, prayer) and The Beatles. He is enamored with The Beatles: they are part of the air he breathed from early on, and they offer a lens through which to understand life and process his experiences. Winsomely credulous and tenacious in hope more than naïve or indolent, Luke tries to discern insight and glean direction from various sources, lyrics of The Beatles at the top of the list. He looks to them not just for direction; he becomes a real aficionado of their music, developing a sophisticated taste for their work and the ability to distinguish between better and worse songs they produce. The credulity of readers isn’t strained by believing the observant boy noticing halting harpsichords, musical progressions, harmonious lullabies, orchestral accompaniment, and layers of discordant singing. Luke can even be critical of them on occasion, but generally his taste and respect for them are unparalleled, and his confidence in them towering. The two biggest virtues they exemplify, to Luke’s thinking, are the insights and illumination their music provides and the togetherness and teamwork they embody.
These twin themes, in my view, are what most tie this whole novel together, and both of them are a function of Luke’s mind and methodology. Part of Luke’s charm is the way he’s so sensitive to signs and signals. It’s as if he’s on a perpetual quest for the truth, for insight into the human condition, or at least for an accurate understanding of the little gestures of affection from his prospective girlfriend. How he reads a wealth of meaning into the way a girl intentionally touches his sleeve a few times is nothing less than delightful, especially when, in retrospect, he tortures himself with questions of whether she meant what he hoped she did. It’s all quintessential childhood, invoking the mystery of gender that rears its head so early, but mostly forgotten until a writer like Harris re-assumes a childhood persona with such authenticity and power and invigorates our recollection.
In this connection, Harris’s portrayal of Luke’s romantic interests is done with a masterfully light and winsome touch, accurately capturing the innocence of childhood so often sacrificed nowadays as if nothing sacred is lost. What we find in Luke is romance that isn’t illicit, an interest in girls without the requisite inordinate sexualization from a ridiculously young age. As such, it’s all quite innocent by contemporary standards, and boldly refreshing, reminiscent of a time when a kiss alone was rife with significance, when the mere prospect of holding a girl in one’s arms was practically rapturous. This feature of the book is simply enchanting. Rather than swallowing an elephant, Harris’s forte and gift is savoring a morsel. Despite all of Luke’s efforts to understand girls, he finally realizes he doesn’t understand them at all, but that they’re still worth the trouble.
Girls are but one example of Luke’s desire for connection, the second integrating motif of the volume, and another visible virtue of The Beatles, at least for a while. Luke understands the band as a team, better together than apart, more than the sum of their parts. He loves to hear them make music that integrated their constituent pieces into a melodious whole with such excellence and skill, and he seems to relish what such integration represents: friends working harmoniously together, forging connectivity. It resonates with Luke’s own passion for community and connection. And this theme is related to the first, for the togetherness of The Beatles is reliable evidence of their teamwork and integration. This is why, for so long, the young Luke resists the idea that the band is experiencing tensions or, later, on the verge of breaking up, or, later still, that they have in fact separated. It grates against Luke to admit or accept it, for if their togetherness shows the power of community and elicits hope, what does the demise of the band represent?
Connection with others, and a girlfriend in particular, animates so much of Luke’s pilgrimage. It’s a prescription to loneliness, the cure for aloneness, deliverance from anger and powerlessness, a way to secure and enjoy love. Even from his early age, Luke recognizes the need for love, its importance and centrality. The very questions Luke asks about love—its permanence, whether God loves him, whether God’s nature is love, whether there can be a conflict between love and the right thing to do, how we can recognize it, whether love can be perfected, how to find it—show the novel to be, despite the protagonist’s introspection, perhaps introversion, profoundly communal in its scope and tenor.
As I read this remarkable little novel, it leaves me with several salient impressions, and a few central questions it intimates at and to which it may offer a clue or two. In the recognition of others—in both their sameness and difference—we find ourselves in need of connection and community, of love and emotional intimacy, of friendship and family. As the inveterate observer that young Luke is, he models how we can’t help but be insatiably curious about life’s mysteries. For one like him, incurably reflective and looking for signals of transcendence, how can love not be the most important clue of all? If a girl touching a sleeve can contain a world, what’s contained in love but the universe? If the mystery and beauty of a girl’s shining smile can fill Luke’s heart with hope, what veridical sign of hope, intimation of the eternal, and insight into reality do relationships of love provide? In a world touched with corruption and loss, grief and death, is there a love that doesn’t disappoint? A love that can keep the dark wolves of fear and loneliness forever at bay? Does the fire within and without consume us, or ultimately perfect us, readying us for ever deeper and rewarding, transformative relationships of love?